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Monday, June 10, 2024

The Forgotten European Country with an Unforgettable Name

Bottleneck the country no longer exists, but its name lingers on as a descriptor of what we all have had to deal with when we bump into government bureaucracy.

Image Credit: Ziegelbrenner - Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines the word bottleneck as “someone or something that slows or halts free movement and progress.”

Given that definition, I expected to see government among the offerings when I checked Merriam-Webster’s Thesaurus for synonyms. But it wasn’t there. Perhaps the reason for its absence may be that on those occasions when government does what it is supposed to do, and does it well, it can be a positive good instead of a bottleneck. Regrettably, those occasions seem increasingly rare.

However, did you know that not long ago, there was a place whose government called itself the “Free State of Bottleneck”? I’m not kidding. Here are some details:

  • The Free State of Bottleneck, nestled between France and Germany, existed for four years and a month, from January 1919 to February 1923, and boasted a population of 17,000.
  • Its capital was Lorch, a town on the Rhine River, whose mayor was elected the country’s president.
  • It issued its own passports, coin, currency, and stamps, all highly prized by collectors to this day.
  • Because it wasn’t formally recognized by its neighboring countries, Bottleneckers couldn’t trade openly with the French or the Germans. So they earned a living by smuggling and by occasionally hijacking a train or a boat.

The “country” derived its odd name by its geographic shape, the result of circular zones of Allied occupation after Germany’s defeat in World War I. The zones were supposed to overlap but didn’t, producing a strip of land between them that looked like a bottleneck on the map. Ironic, isn’t it, that incompetent government map makers inadvertently created an unclaimed chunk of previously-German land whose very shape resembles both a wine bottle and a common “duty” of government itself, namely, slowing or halting free movement and progress.

Bottleneck earned its own chapter in Gideon Defoe’s fascinating 2020 book, An Atlas of Extinct Countries. Defoe writes of its citizens:

They issued an emergency currency, which featured a picture of locals having a much-needed drink. Sometimes they would moon the French troops garrisoned on their eastern border.

The Bottleneck technically came to an end when the French decided to occupy the entire Ruhr valley [in 1923]—a response to Germany repeatedly defaulting on their World War I reparations payments—but, in 1994, some inhabitants of the former state tried reviving it, appointing ministers and even issuing passports. These are not recognized anywhere but do include a voucher that gets you a three-course dinner plus a discount on the locally produced wine. [Today, what was once Bottleneck is part of Germany].

If the French hadn’t overrun the Free State of Bottleneck in 1923, or if the quaint little enclave had re-emerged as its own country after World War II, who knows what might have become of it? It might be a successful micro-state of which there are several in the world today (see my articles on Andorra, San Marino, and Liechtenstein in the list of suggested readings below).

Alas, Bottleneck the country no longer exists, but its name lingers on as a descriptor of what we all have had to deal with when we bump into government bureaucracy. Maybe someday there will be a country called “The Department of Motor Vehicles.”

Postscript: Thanks to an old friend, Bob Duplantier, for letting me know of a 1939 film, Destry Rides Again, a Western comedy set in the fictional town of Bottleneck. It stars Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart.

Additional Resources:

Country Oddities: The Bottleneck Free State by Bremerblog 

Bottleneck Free State: A German Smuggler’s Republic (video)

An Atlas of Extinct Countries by Gideon Defoe

Russia Almost Sold Alaska to this Tiny European Country by Lawrence W. Reed

The Gorgeous Micro-State that Boasts One of the Best Tax Climates in the World by Lawrence W. Reed

More Cars than People by Lawrence W. Reed


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.